Copied from an email exchange.


Did we know about the Royal Society’s PLOS ONE-clone?

I am in favour of this. I might well send them my next paper while the universal waiver is still in place.


Did not know about it. Their post-waiver APC is insane. How can they possibly justify $1600?


Well, I am obviously not a big fan of a $1600 APC; but it’s not a great deal more than PLOS ONE, and much less than PLOS Biology/Medicine.

But I think we’re converging on the idea that you can make a living running journals that charge $500 — see Ubiquity Press at – so I think anyone charging more than that has to explain why. In the case of the Royal Society, I assume it’s to fund their other activities; I am assured that I could get a waiver anyway, since I lack funding.

But are you saying you definitely won’t publish there even during the $0 phase?

Matt (with Mike’s previous post quoted):

Well, I am obviously not a big fan of a $1600 APC; but it’s not a great deal more than PLOS ONE

Right, but the direction of change should be down, not up.

and much less than PLOS Biology/Medicine.

Well, is this new journal supposed to a PLOS ONE clone or a PLOS Biology clone? If the former, a lower APC is more desirable. And even talking in such terms is conceding that “prestige” outlets should get to charge more, which does not sit well with me.

But I think we’re converging on the idea that you can make a living running journals that charge $500 – see Ubiquity Press at – so I think anyone charging more than that has to explain why. In the case of the Royal Society, I assume it’s to fund their other activities;

I would like to have that demonstrated rather than assumed; I’d like to know the extra dough is actually going to support science rather than enrich shareholders. I’m not very optimistic.

I am assured that I could get a waiver anyway, since I lack funding.

Sure. But just because you could dodge that hammer doesn’t legitimize their swinging it.

But are you saying you definitely won’t publish there even during the $0 phase?

Probably not, for two reasons. First, I don’t want to put on airs but I know that where we publish does influence other people’s thoughts on these things. PeerJ got at least a small legitimacy bump in paleo because we were in it right out of the gate and singing its praises [Or so I’ve heard, from more than once source. – MJW]. I don’t want to lend my endorsement to an outfit that is charging an unjustifiably high APC. Definitely not if the extra money is going to shareholders, and possibly not even if all of it is going to science. A $1600 APC only looks non-insane because the real bastards are charging even more. If we were in a PeerJ/Ubiquity world where APCs were all $500 or less, and a new journal came along that said, “Hey, you can publish with us and donate $1100 to our cause every time!” I’d say “Screw you!” and I assume most other folks would as well. So even if all the extra money is going to a good cause, they’re still promulgating the idea that APCs over $500 are justified. I can’t get behind that.
Second, will they give me everything PeerJ does? Because they are charging a hell of a lot more. Even if I get a waiver, if they’re not going to take care of me as well as PeerJ, screw ’em. The bar has been raised. Are they actually adding value relative to the new, post-PeerJ baseline, or are they in fact launching a journal with 2005 functionality in 2015? I should applaud them for belatedly getting on board?
In short, my authorship is theirs to earn, and so far I haven’t seen anything that makes me think they’ll earn it.


Yes, APCs should be pushing downwards all the time now. I agree that the Royal Society coming in at a level above PLOS ONE doesn’t look good — indeed PLOS ONE’s own $1350 is also looking increasingly unfashionable in the light of (A) Ubiquity providing essentially the same service for 37% of the price, and (B) the fact that PLOS now runs at an operating surplus of 27%. To my mind, it’s well past time that PLOS ONE found a way to wind its APC down — really, down into triple figures ($999 would do), though even a nominal reduction of say $50 would send a good message.

You’re absolutely right that Royal Society Open Science is, by design, a PLOS ONE rather than a PLOS Biology: it reviews on correctness alone, not on guesswork about likely impact. So, yes, it’s PLOS ONE’s price-point that’s the correct comparison here.

Where you’re mistaken, though, is in assuming that the Royal Society has shareholders who might be skimming off the cream from the APC. There are none: the Society has nothing else to spend publishing profits on but furthering its scientific mission. (Of course, it doesn’t follow from this that is ought to be seeking to make a profit from publishing at all. It has other sources of income, and presently only 8% of its income is from publishing profits.)

But I hear you on the message sent by acquiescing to a $1600-APC journal, even if that APC is waived. We both want to shift towards a world where there are no journals that charge that kind of money — or at least, that if they do, it’s because they’re the kind of “selective” journal that thinks there’s something praiseworthy about rejecting most scientifically sound submissions. Journals of that kind don’t concern me one way or another, because I just don’t play that game.

This abomination — a proposal for a “UK National Licence” for open-access papers, making them available only in the UK, is not an April Fool joke. It’s a serious proposal, put forward by HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, which styles itself “the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education” (though I note without comment that they routinely partner with Elsevier).

It’s desperately disappointing that British academics should propose something as small-minded and xenophobic as this, which I can only refer to as the UKIP Licence.  Let’s start counting some of the ways this is a terrible, terrible idea.

1. It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first coined the term, describes OA as “free availability on the public internet” (i.e. not a subnet), “permitting any users” (i.e. not just British users) “without financial, legal, or technical barriers” (i.e. no filtering on IP addresses).

2. It positions the UK as the one country in the world willing to poison the open-access well, prepared to destroy value for 199 countries in the hope of increasing it for one. This makes it a classic prisoner’s-dilemma “defect” strategy — an approach which has been shown by multi-algorithm tournaments to reliably downgrade the defector’s outcome.

3. British people gain more when 200 countries are working on advances in health, education, etc., than when only one is. This tiny-minded licence, if adopted, would hobble British innovation, health and education, as well as that of the rest of the world.

4. Most important, it’s mean. We have to be better than this. Publishing research about diseases that kill millions in third-world countries, then preventing scientists in those countries from reading that research is not just stupid, it’s despicable. It’s hard to imagine behaviour more unrepresentative of the values that we like to imagine the UK embodies.

Oh, and 5. it won’t work, of course. Barring access by IP address is a notoriously flawed approach, which hides content from Brits abroad while allowing access to anyone anywhere who knows how to use a Web proxy.

Putting it all together, this is about the most misguided proposal imaginable. I would like to see its authors, both of them senior at UCL, withdraw it with all possible haste, and with an appropriate apology.

[I would have left this comment on HEPI’s blog-post announcing their proposal,  but comments are turned off — perhaps not surprisingly. I did leave a version of it on the Times Higher Education article about this.]

Update the next day: see also David Kernohan’s post A local licence for Henbury.

Update 9th April: this post, lightly modified, is published as a letter in today’s Times Higher Education. More importantly, you should all go and read Stephen Curry’s much more dispassionate, but equally critical, analysis of the National Licence proposal.

I had an email out of the blue this morning, from someone I’d not previously corresponded with, asking me an important question about PeerJ. I thought it was worth sharing the question, and its answer, more generally. So here it is.

Do you have any insight into the PeerJ business model? When I try to persuade people to publish in PeerJ, a very common response is that the journal can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.

And indeed PeerJ’s financial model does seem too good to be true: rather than charging an APC of $1350 (as PLOS ONE does) or $3000 (as the legacy publishers do for their not-really-open hybrid articles), PeerJ charges just $99 per author — which buys not just the right to publish one article, but one per year for life. (Or you can pay $300 for the right to publish any number of papers forever.)

PeerJ is a privately owned company and does not disclose its internal financial details. Since I have no connection with PeerJ (other than being a very satisfied customer), I know nothing of the financials.

But here is what we do know.

1. PeerJ is run by Pete Binfield, who has more experience of running open-access megajournals than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked his own livelihood on it.

2. The principal outside investor in PeerJ is Tim O’Reilly, who has more experience of making money from free-to-read content than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked a seven-figure sum on it.

3. Most importantly, the content in PeerJ is safe forever, because it’s fully, properly, BOAI-compliant open access, licenced using CC By, and archived at PubMed Central. So even if the worst happened, if PeerJ went bankrupt, everything published in it would live on.

4. Since CC-By documents cannot be re-enclosed if their publisher is acquired, even if PeerJ were acquired by a predatory barrier-based publisher such as Elsevier, the articles would remain safe.

5. We have got into the habit of paying far too much for publishing. On average paywalled papers cost the world more than $5000 each. Legacy publishers typically charge APCs of $3000 or so. Yet born-digital publishers such as Ubiquity Press need charge only $500, and show the breakdown of that cost. (And note that $80 of that is set aside to cover waivered articles for which no fee is paid.) Against that analysis, PeerJ’s fees don’t look crazy. The truth is that, as well as their 35% profit-margins, legacy publishers’ costs are sky-high because they are dragging around the carcass of print-based publishing.

6. Numerous universities are confident enough of the PeerJ model that they have signed up for institutional plans. You know, little universities like Cambridge, UCL and Bristol (UK), and Harvard, MIT and Cornell (USA).

Putting it all together, we see that the PeerJ financial model is roughly in alignment with other new-model publishers, that the details are persuasive enough to convince the world-leading experts who know about them, that the open-access papers published in PeerJ will be freely available to the world forever, whatever happens — which is more than we can say for articles “published” behind paywalls, and that the world’s leading universities are on board.

In short, there is no rational reason not to publish in PeerJ (unless you’re statistically illiterate enough to think that its lack of an impact factor is of any scientific significance).

Just launched: a new open-access journal of vertebrate paleontology, brought to you by the University of Alberta, Canada! It’s called VAMP (Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology), and it charges no APC. Here’s a illustration from one of the two articles in its first issue.

Holmes (2104:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

Holmes (2014:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

VAMP uses the canonical open-access licence, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC By), which means it fulfils both the letter and the spirit of the Budapest Open Access Initiative’s definition of OA.

It’s great that we in vertebrate palaeontology can add this journal to the roster of OA journals in our field, already including Palaeontologia Electronica, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, The Fossil Record and others. (Plus of course there is lots of vertebrate palaeontology in PLOS ONE and PeerJ.) I think that as a field, we are ahead of the curve in making the transition towards an all-OA literature.



Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).

Figure 4. Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Figure 4: Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)

The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:

28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication

TOTAL 49 days

Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.

At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!

Screenshot from 2014-12-23 10:39:34


A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.

Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!

I wrote last week that I can’t support Nature’s new broken-access initiative for two reasons: practically, I can’t rely on it; and philosophically I can’t abide work being done to reduce utility.

More recently I read a post on Nature’s blog: Content sharing is *not* open access and why NPG is committed to both. It’s well worth reading: concise, clear and helpful. The key point they make is that “This is not a step back from open access or an attempt to undermine it. We see content sharing as an additional offering to open access, not instead of it”. But do read the article, as it provides useful background on NPG’s moves towards open access.

So NPG do look pretty much like the good guys here. They are not taking anything away; they are adding a thing that no-one is obliged to use; and they are carefully not claiming that this thing is something it’s not. What’s not to like? Surely at worst this has to have net zero value, yes?

Well, no.

The first thing is that for me the value is not more than zero, because articles that might evaporate at any moment are simply not of value to me as a researcher. If I am going to cite them, I need to have permanent copies, so I can check back on what I meant.

All right — but doesn’t that leave the value at last no less than zero?

Well, it depends. When I wrote last year about the travesty that is “walk-in access” — the ridiculous idea that you can physically go to a special magic building to use their anointed computers to read documents your own computer is perfectly capable of reading — I speculated:

I can only assume that was always the intention of the barrier-based publishers on the Finch committee that came up with this initiative: to deliver a stillborn access initiative that they can point to and say “See, no-one wants open access”.

It’s easy to imagine barrier-based publishers making the same point when take-up of NPG’s broken access is low. That’s one possible bad outcome that would make the broken-access offer a net negative.

Another, much more serious, one would the fragmentation of the literature into multiple mutually incompatible subsets. In this dystopia, you’d have to read NPG papers on ReadCube, Elsevier papers using Mendeley, and so on. As Peter Murray-Rust noted:

Maybe we’ll shortly return to the browser-wars “this paper only viewable on Read-Cube”. If readers are brainwashed into compliance by technology restrictions our future is grim.

Say what you want about PDFs — and there is plenty to dislike about them — the format is at least defined by an open standard: anyone can write software to read and display it, and lots of different groups have created implementations. The idea of papers that can only be read by a specific program (almost certainly a proprietary one) is a horrifyingly retrograde one.

And here’s a third possible bad consequence. ReadCube is one of those applications that “phones home” — it tracks what you read. NPG say that this data is anonymised, but the opportunities for abuse are obvious. Suppose you look up a lot of papers about cancer and find that your health insurance premiums have gone up. You read papers about communist theory, and can’t get a place at the university you thought was keen to take you. Right now, this isn’t happening (so NPG assure us) but history does not give us reason to be optimistic about corporations owning big databases about user behaviour.

So the outcomes of NPG’s kind offer, intentionally or not, could include anti-OA propaganda based on poor update, fragmentation of the literature into technically incompatible subsets, and violation of researcher privacy.

Not a pretty prospect.

But here’s why I feel even worse about this: pointing it out feels like throwing a generous offer back in the faces of the people who made it. When I read Timo Hannay’s visionary exposition of what broken access is meant to achieve, and Steven Inchcoombe and Grace Baynes clear explanation of what it is and isn’t, I see good people honestly trying to do good work, and I hate to be so negative about it.

So my heartfelt apologies to Timo, Steven and Grace; but I gotta call ’em like I see ’em, and to me broken access looks like an offer with very low value, and carrying several significant threats.

What I would really like to see from NPG — an unequivocal good that I could celebrate unreservedly — would be for them to make all their articles properly open access (CC By) after one year. That would be a genuine and valuable contribution to the progress of research.


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